Immersive Arctic images can slash pain, scientists find

Sarah Knapton
Arctic scenery can help fight pain, Imperial College has found - Copyright (c) 2015 Rex Features. No use without permission.

Patients suffering from chronic pain could find ease by becoming virtually immersed in scenes of icebergs, frozen oceans and sprawling icescapes, a study has shown.

Imperial College London scientists have demonstrated that wearing VR headsets which played videos from the North Pole helps relieve intense burning pain. 

As well has having a distracting effect, researchers think immersing patients in virtual reality may trigger the body’s own inbuilt pain-fighting systems, calming the discomfort.

Dr Sam Hughes, from the MSk Lab at Imperial and first author on the paper, said: “One of the key features of chronic pain is you get increased sensitivity to painful stimuli. This means patients’ nerves are constantly ‘firing’ and telling their brain they are in a heightened state of pain. 

“Our work suggests that VR may be interfering with processes in the brain, brainstem and spinal cord, which are known to be key parts of our inbuilt pain-fighting systems and are instrumental in regulating the spread of increased sensitivity to pain.”

In the trial, 15 healthy volunteers were given a topical cream on the skin of their leg containing capsaicin – the fiery compound in chilies that makes the mouth burn. 

Once the capsaicin had sensitised the skin, subjects were also given small electric shocks mimicking the heightened sensitivity of people with chronic pain; such as lower back pain, arthritis, or nerve pain.

Scientists used the chemical found in chilies to induce the sensation of burning  Credit: Julian Simmonds 

Participants were then asked to rate the pain while watching a VR scene of Arctic exploration through a headset or looking at a still image of a similar icy scene on a monitor. 

The team found that ongoing pain was reduced following VR immersion, and that sensitivity to painful stimuli on the skin was also reduced. 

However, the same effect was not seen in people who looked at still images of the polar environment, showing immersion is the key factor.

The team, now plans to further investigate the pathways involved in the VR dampening effect, including whether a dosing regimen would work such as 30 minutes, four times a day  and if the effects would be cumulative or remain temporary.

“The aim of this study was to show VR has the ability to change the pathological processing associated with chronic pain,” added Dr Hughes.

“Using this approach does seem to reduce the overall intensity of the ongoing pain as well as the response we get on the skin. We think there could be changes in the body’s pain relief system’s which can affect how pain sensitivity is processed in the spinal cord.”

The research was published in Scientific Reports.